The rampantly spreading Coronavirus has impacted the life of every human being in unimaginable ways. May that be a rich aristocrat or a roadside barber, the virus has physically, financially, socially and mentally affected the lifestyle of all. To prevent the virus from spreading, people around the globe have self-quarantined themselves to maintain social distances from others. Social distancing and self-quarantining might be the fastest ways available to eradicate the virus but have also led to a creation of panic amongst the people due to which they are hoarding necessities. The supermarket shelves have all cleared out and there are frantic buyers quarrelling amongst each other for the leftovers. In this article, I will mainly focus on the crisis caused due to the shortage of toilet paper.
A sudden desperation for toilet paper may sound absurd but follows the theory on consumer behaviour. Human beings like having everything under their control and it is in chaos that our survival instincts are threatened. Patricia Huddleston, professor of retailing at Michigan University, said “People are scared, and when there is fear, we try to exert some control over our environment. Making sure that we have enough of a basic necessity is one way to calm fear and exert control”.
Astonishingly, statistics show that toilet paper is one of those commodities that is perceived as a necessity in the time of emergency. This claim was backed by Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science and marketing at Chicago Booth University where she said “Toilet paper is strongly associated with “basic necessities” more so than tissue paper or shampoo, for example”. Fear compels individuals to make irrational decisions, just like how it did in this case as well. Manoj Thomas, professor of marketing at Cornell University, has another reason that complements the justification of why this pandemic occurred. He believes that this turmoil is ‘solely by the bulky packaging size of toilet papers’. Due to the packaging size, even if five buyers buy one packet, the shelves empty out faster, compared to a shelf of soap, ‘creating a visual cue of scarcity’. Panic driven buyers in America have driven for hours to go to Mexico in search of toilet paper, whereas in Hong Kong a gang robbery of 600 toilet paper rolls was reported to the police. The absurdity of such news sometimes makes me wonder how deep the impact of the virus is.
These explanations mentioned above can surely help us justify the ‘created scarcity’ in most of the world, but countries like India where toilet paper is not used as frequently as it is in the other countries, it seems to me that there might be other rationalisations as well. I agree with Ronald Mackerville, professor of recreation and leisure studies at University of Waterloo, when he says that ‘toilet paper has become a symbol of scarcity’. It is due to quick networking and communication around the globe that has created this symbolism. “If social media had focused instead on images of lines at gas stations, or empty shelves of canned goods, or coolers emptied of dairy products, we might have seen very different behavior” Ronald says. The picture attached above is just one of the many social media posts where individuals have portrayed a sense of achievement in being able to stock toilet paper.
The list of such arguments is ever-growing, but what is more interesting is the way people have used this panic-stricken state as an opportunity to earn profits (arguably unethical). A restaurant named Libby’s Southern Comfort in Covington, Kentuky has started giving a free roll of toilet paper with each takeout order placed. This was a promotional strategy that proved to be very profitable for the restaurant, so much so that the restaurant members said, “Carry out business is on the up and up!”. Shops in different areas of London have been accused of overcharging the customers for toilet roll. They have inflated the price by 60 per cent and above to cash in more and more in lieu of the situation in hand. A shopper named Amadeus Martin wrote on his social media account: ‘This is NOT about the store trying to limit the amount their customers purchase, this is purely about greed. To be clear this is a 60% mark up on the RRP!’
It has become crucial to communicate the right information and right advice to control this phenomena of panic buying. Panic buying is creating a vacuum between the suppliers and the buyers which is not only adding to the chaos but creating unnecessary disturbance in the system.
Vanshika Shah is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations